May 28, 2014

Data and the Designer: Michael McPherson shares his thoughts on Data Visualization

People from all walks of scholarship, research, and business have sought more meaningful ways to analyze and communicate data since 2nd century Egyptians organized astronomical information into more easily scan-able charts to aid navigation. Today, for a variety of reasons – from the need to interpret Big Data to the dominance of mobile interfaces, data visualization is a hot topic. We recently sat down with Michael McPherson, partner and creative director of Corey McPherson Nash, to talk about how he became interested in data visualization as both a designer and business person.

Corey: So, how did you originally become interested in data visualization?

Michael: The way we process information is fascinating, and one of the most important skills for graphic designers is presenting data as visually clear information. As a young designer back in the 70s I first realized the power of visualization when I saw a copy of Graphis Diagrams, a compendium of the most sophisticated and gorgeous infographics from around the world. I saw that a diagram could be both a rich source of information and a work of art.

At the same time the British illustrator/designer Nigel Holmes was creating editorial diagrams for Time magazine that cleverly integrated the information in charts with a witty visual comment on their content. And then Richard Saul Wurman developed his brilliant Access Guides to cities, using Swiss-inspired graphics to help newcomers navigate unfamiliar terrain. Later, the social scientist Edward Tufte brought a certain puritanical rigor to data visualization, scorning the prevailing “chart junk” inspired by some of the disciples of Nigel Holmes, and questioning the more formalist approach of doctrinaire modernists, such as the late Massimo Vignelli.

Each innovator came at it from different perspectives – Tufte from that of data integrity, Wurman from user experience, Vignelli from aesthetic purity; but among them, they advanced our understanding of data visualization principles and best practices.

Tufte gained particular notoriety for his analysis of the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986. His premise was that, had NASA engineers presented their data on the failure potential of the O-ring clearly, the launch would probably have been scrubbed. His thesis was that a simple scatter plot visualization would have literally saved the lives of seven astronauts. Of course, that’s pretty sobering, and it brings up an important aspect of data visualization that’s important to designers: it is critical that we don’t distort the information represented in the data through our design. A simple graph, for example can tell a different story depending upon the scale of each axis.

Designers around the world are mourning the passing of Massimo Vignelli, one of the great figures of modern design. Vignelli was admired – and often reviled – for the strict purity of his formal, minimalist vision and his passionate dedication to simplicity and restraint. His most notable achievement was the design of the map for the New York subway system, a piece that was collected by the Museum of Modern Art but was considered a failure by the MTA because the design was too abstract and didn’t respond to the needs of riders to identify local landmarks or indicate the scale of the distance traveled between stops.

Corey: What did Wurman bring to the table?

Michael: Wurman’s a very interesting fellow. In addition to creating the Access Guides, he was the original creator of TED Talks, based on his observation that the most interesting people he sat next to on airplanes were involved in technology, entertainment or design. The Access Guides are guides to shops, hotels, tourist attractions, and architectural sites in major cities. They’re organized geographically and are designed to be held in one hand. Wurman’s premise was that “information design” starts with the user. The job of information design, as with data visualization, is to make information as instantaneously comprehensible and useable as possible. His Access Guides were designed to address the structure and processing of information, along with the anticipated questions, perceptions and cognitive abilities of the tourist or visitor in order to make them as instantly useful as possible. (In conversation, he said he got the idea because he was always traveling to new places and was always lost.) And the Access Guides were a great success as a business. Wurman sold the franchise and bought a mansion in Newport.

Corey: What do you feel are some of the most effective examples of information design in use – past or present?

Michael: To begin, I think one of the most interesting – and useful – design developments in this arena is also one of the most simple and elegant: icons. The ability to distill complex concepts down into the simplest, most intuitive graphic representations is a challenging process. We now count on iconography to help us navigate streets, buildings and mobile devices. They’re everywhere, and we usually take them for granted. The design process is almost like creating a new language, one that is universal and global

Corey: What has driven the need for such pervasive need for iconography and visual communication? Does it all stem from Big Data, or are there other factors?

Michael: Certainly “Big Data” and the pace of decision making required in business and society have driven the need to visually communicate information intuitively and eloquently. But another critical factor has been globalization. Again, in the absence of a common language, we created a visual language in the form of charts, graphs, tables, and icons. For example, imagine the process of designing an icon for something as simple as men’s and women’s restrooms at an international airport. As humble as the purpose was, this was a big undertaking. Multiple alternatives had to be tested, because the final presentation had to be instantly and accurately recognizable to anyone, from anywhere in the world. The design had to address the qualities of an enormously diverse group of users. In a global environment, using language is often less effective than using symbols, and this is true whether we’re in an airport, hotel, on a website or interacting with a screen.

Corey: What is the connection of data visualization with mobile technology? Is it cause-and-effect?

Michael: Well, we’re so overwhelmed by impressions – whether e-mail, social media or mobile. Succinct ways of summarizing words and numbers is more important than ever, especially at the highest levels of decision making. It was a natural progression for us to develop a new requirement for good design: can we read it on our smartphone?

Corey: What is the connection between data visualization and Infographics – or is there one?

Michael: Data visualization tends to deal with big numbers, it depicts but doesn’t interpret; whereas an infographic is more likely to tell a story using a variety of images and icons (as well as words and numbers). When done well, each will provide insight through imagery that a verbal description cannot. It’s like trying to explain geometry. If you try to explain the Pythagorean Theorem to someone using language alone or mathematical symbols alone you’re far less likely to be effective than if you draw a diagram and let the image show relationships and make abstract shapes real. I’ve always loved geometry – and that’s probably why.

Corey: Do you have a favorite book pertaining to data visualization, and why?

Michael: Actually one of the best books on data visualization is by Hendrik Hertzberg, titled “One Million.” When you see it, you’ll understand why. It really gives you a feeling for the quantity “one million” without cutting corners and without overwhelming the reader. You can see what a million looks like and feels like. It’s not a metaphor – it’s the real thing. Michael McPherson is a partner and a creative director with Corey McPherson Nash. (Yes, that McPherson). Originally an avid student of philosophy, Michael is a master of keeping all things in perspective and achieving balance. Michael has his MFA in Graphic Design from Rhode Island School of Design, where he is still an active alum, and earned his BA in Philosophy from Reed College.


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The Access Guides and the Contradictions of Design

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One Million

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